Photo: Rhodri Brooks / Courtesy of Fire Records

Islet Strike a Balance on ‘Eyelet’

Welsh trio Islet's third album Eyelet is, for the most part, an engaging and contemplative journey through ethereal psychedelic pop.

6 March 2020

Islet’s latest album is difficult to pin down by design. The Welsh psychedelic pop group’s third record Eyelet begins on the slow thermometer-build of “Caterpillar”, with an earnest guitar line flowing into a wash of synths and bass. “Alive / How I want you / I feel you,” vocalist Emma Daman Thomas murmurs over the sound, a small blessing for her unborn child. The metaphor is clear enough in this track, but it’s important to note “Caterpillar” isn’t necessarily a celebration of new life, or an anxiety-laden dirge despite it. It’s an indication of what’s to come on Eyelet, a meditative little album less interested in hitting dramatic beats than opening and sustaining soundscapes.

A large part of Islet’s charm, running through their first two albums Illuminated People and Released by the Movement, relies on their ability to graft familiar structures to new contexts. You could have recognized Islet’s shared DNA in Tune-Yards, or even a pre-Innerspeaker Tame Impala, marrying a forthright earthiness to dizzy indie-electronica. But Eyelet affords the trio a more immediate kind of contemplation, allowing their sound to take on greater resonance than it’s sought before.

Remarkably, Eyelet isn’t a heavier or more apprehensive record, considering the circumstances it came about in: just before the recording sessions, as Emma and Mark Daman Thomas welcomed their new baby into the world, bandmate Alex Williams lost his mother. All of Eyelet sounds as though it’s seeking equilibrium in this wake, a balance between life and loss that rejects neither.

Tracks like “Good Grief”, “Sgwylfa Rock”, and “Clouds” walk this line with an irreverent poise, as they mix lush and joyous sounds with yearning lyrics. The rippling synths and tumbling percussion give foundation to the longing in Emma Daman Thomas’ voice, tethering the album to the earth even as it pulls skyward. “Geese”, the album’s seven-minute-long psychedelic centerpiece, is the clearest and most gorgeous Eyelet‘s mission gets. Daman Thomas’ floaty “Be my paradise” soars over the song’s smooth-shifting tones and textures, collapsing time and geography into a loving voyage. It’s pleasant enough to zone out to, but it’s also a microcosm of why Eyelet works when it does, how it rewards a listener for holding tight to the real behind the ethereal.

The problem is that Eyelet‘s ethereal ends up taking up as much room on the album as the real, to the detriment of both. Many of the songs feel frustratingly reaching in deflating departure from the confidence of the first half. “Radel 10”, a punchy track whose production lives up to its namesake, should hit much harder than it does, but the lyrics feel oddly lost in the sonic shuffle. The lyrics “Or shall I go back where / Or disappear / No” ought to strike a particularly bitter chord on “Radel 10”, and the trio do their best to mix in the political here and in “No Host”, but the words and their weight get lost in Islet’s dedication to cultivating soundscapes. The gloriously gloomy “Moon” and jaunty “Florist” struggle with much the same, stranding abstract verses in dense sound. Balance is a tricky thing, and Eyelet is an album about the difficulty of finding balance. It’s something of a letdown that the listener gets just as muddled in that search as Islet does.

But it’s important not to mistake Eyelet‘s opacity for disinterest. On some level, it’s the point: Islet’s more interested in unfurling their sound here than demanding a definite grip. As Eyelet pieces through grief, belonging, and desire (that last one especially, on delicate album closer “Gyratory Circus”), you get the distinct notion these songs aren’t subtle discrete moments, but instead lovingly-constructed parts of a greater whole. For what it’s worth, Islet’s intention is crucial here—and refreshingly genuine.

RATING 6 / 10